Imagining Numbers

The famous saying that "a picture is worth a thousand words" is paralleled by statisticians who might say that a picture can be worth a thousand numbers.  In fact every day we are presented in newspapers or on television with graphics trying to get across some form of numerical message.  A recent example in Australia was during the election where every day various trends were displayed as images.  Perhaps the most controversial was the "worm", a simple means of displaying an audience's reaction during a debate.

Statisticians use graphics like this and are worried by them.  They use them because part of a statistician's role is to make sense of and communicate such results.  They worry about them because a simplification in a graphic can produce a misleading message.  Not for nothing did Darrel Huff's famous book How to Lie with Statistics include many examples of graphics designed to hide facts or to mislead.  In the example of the worm, the statistician would have concern about how representative the audience is and the significance of the fluctuations, while at the same time recognising that it clearly connects with the viewers.

Data Analysis Australia faces these issues daily, not regarding a project finished until the results have been properly communicated.  The right graphics are part of this.  Data Analysis Australia uses some of the best techniques developed by statisticians over the past forty years, since the advent of computers with graphic displays meant that it was possible to readily produce information rich, if not artistically good, graphics to help understand data.  (This started  when a graphic display device cost about the same as a large house!)  More recently the statistician (and political scientist) Edward Tufte has done much to bring back the aesthetics into statistical graphics, starting with his classic text The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and subsequent books.  These provide guidelines for good graphics in Data Analysis Australia.

The area that is perhaps least well served today with quality graphics is business.  Modern spreadsheet software makes it easy to generate charts, but the defaults rarely give good graphics - too much clutter, poor choice of scales and few methods of displaying many variables.  Data Analysis Australia uses a range of software to augment standard spreadsheets to create graphics with total control.

April 2008